The Blue Angels air show on Pensacola Beach is a rite of summer. Millions have sat on the white sands baking in the hot July sun for hours to see the finest pilots in the world perform dazzling, breathtaking aerial maneuvers.
The “Blues” make us proud to be Americans and proud to live in Pensacola, the “Cradle of Naval Aviation.” We feel a kinship with the pilots. They are ours. New Orleans has the Super Bowl champion Saints. Boston has the Celtics, and New York has the Yankees.
Pensacola has the Blue Angels, and we wouldn’t trade them for anything. The Blues, which celebrate their 45th anniversary this year, are the connection to our military past and give us hope for the future.
“From an attack pilot’s perspective with thousands of hours in high-performance aircraft, I get goose bumps today watching them,” said retired four-star Admiral Robert Kelly, who served as Commander in Chief of United States Pacific Fleet from 1991 to 1994.
“It takes a really special kind of pilot and a hell of a lot of training to do that,” he added. Few locals would disagree.
The flight demonstration team was formed at the end of World War II by Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, the Chief of Naval Operations, to showcase Naval Aviation. The unnamed team was formed on April 24, 1946 and performed its first flight demonstration at Naval Air Station Jacksonville’s Craig Field on June 15 of the same year. Led by Lt. Cmdr. Roy M. “Butch” Voris, the team was equipped with three Grumman F6F-5 Hellcats.
According to the Grumman History Center, the initial name assigned to the team was “Blue Lancers,” but it was never accepted. In July, Lt. Cmdr. Voris announced the team would be known as the “Blue Angels.”
By 1947, the team had transitioned to its second Flight Leader, Lt. Cmdr. Robert Clarke, added a fourth Bearcat to the formation and produced the diamond formation, which became the Blue Angel trademark. Two years later, “Blue Angels” was added to both sides of the cowl.
By the end of the decade, the Blue Angels were flying their first jet aircraft, the Grumman F9F-2 Panther. The team briefly halted demonstrations during the Korean War and reported in 1950 to the aircraft carrier USS Princeton as the nucleus of Fighter Squadron 191, “Satan’s Kitten.” The squadron flew combat missions over the Korean peninsula and suffered the loss of its skipper and former Blue Angel leader Lt. Cmdr. Johnny Magda, who was killed while on a mission.
The Blue Angels were reorganized the next year and reported to NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, where they began flying the newer and faster version of the Panther, the F9F-5. The Blue Angels relocated two years later to NAS Pensacola.
Over the next 20 years, the Blue Angels progressed from the Grumman F9F-8 Cougar (1954) to the Grumman F11F-1 Tiger (1957) to the McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II (1969).
In 1973, the Blue Angels experienced several crashes. Capt. John Fogg, Lt. Marlin Wiita and Lt. Cmdr. Don Bentley survived in March a multi-aircraft mid-air collision during practice over the Superstition Mountains in California. That July, Team Leader Lt. Cmdr. Skip Umstead, Capt. Mike Murphy and ADJ1 Ron Thomas perished in a mid-air collision between two Phantoms over Lakehurst, N.J. during an arrival practice.
“The Blues were shut down for a whole year,” said Kelly. “In fact, there was a big debate whether they were going to resume the Blue Angels. Sanity prevailed, and they made a squadron out of it, and shifted them into A4s.”
In December 1974, the Navy Flight Demonstration Team began flying the McDonnell Douglas A-4F Skyhawk II and was reorganized into the Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron. This reorganization permitted the establishment of a commanding officer as a flight leader, added support officers and further redefined the squadron’s mission emphasizing the support of recruiting efforts. Their first commanding officer was Tony Less, who was Kelly’s roommate in Vietnam.
“Basically, they were crashing too many airplanes and killing too many people, so they said, we need a little more adult leadership,” said retired Capt. Bob Stumpf, who commanded the Blue Angels from 1993-94. “They brought in a much more senior guy.”
On Nov. 8, 1986, the Blue Angels completed their 40th anniversary year during ceremonies unveiling their present aircraft, the sleek McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, the first dual-role fighter/attack aircraft.
TRAINED IN BLOCKS
During its history, 26 Blue Angels pilots have been killed in air show or training accidents. However, Stumpf bristled at any mention of the apparent risks in flying with the Blues.
“From day one of the training of new Blue Angel pilots, you don’t do anything that’s dangerous,” said Stumpf. “You take a building block approach, so that each day you get a little bit closer, maybe a little bit lower, maybe a little bit faster. You don’t go to the next step until you’ve mastered the step before it.”
If there is anything inherently unsafe about any maneuver at any time, in training or in the season, it is identified immediately in the debriefing. “The name for that is called ‘a safety,’” said Stumpf.
“The whole training and performance approach is one of safety. It’s sort of like nuclear weapons—you can’t afford a catastrophe. You have to do everything carefully and precisely.”
Each year, the Blue Angels add two or three new pilots. Since 1967, the squadron has traveled to NAF El Centro in California’s Imperial Valley, 120 miles east of San Diego, for their winter training.
New pilots are trained using the building-block approach described by Stumpf, keeping the training within a two-plane section.
“Within the four-plane diamond formation, Number 3 (left wingman) is trained by Number 4 (slot pilot),” explained Kelly. “Number 1 (flight team leader) trains number 2 (right wingman).”
Number 5 is the lead solo, and he trains Number 6 (opposing solo). Number 7 is the narrator and advance pilot.
The flight team leader/commanding officer rotates out at the end of the season. The once-new pilots move up to the senior positions. The right wingman (Number 2) trains flight team leader (Number 1), the new pilot moves to left wingman (Number 3), who in turn moves to the slot pilot (Number 4), who has overall responsibility for the entire formation. The narrator (Number 7), who serves on the Blue Angels for three years, goes to opposing solo (Number 6), and the previous opposing solo goes to lead solo (Number 5).
“That’s the way it’s supposed to work,” said Stumpf. “Then you have stuff happen and all that rotation gets flopped around…probably more often than not. Typically you have six demo pilots, two or three of them are new.”
A total of 16 officers voluntarily serve with the Blue Angels. Career-oriented Navy and Marine Corps jet pilots with an aircraft carrier qualification and a minimum of 1,250 tactical jet flight-hours are eligible for positions flying jets Number 2 through 7.
The Events Coordinator, Number 8, is a Naval Flight Officer (NFO) or a Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) who meets the same criteria as Numbers 2 through 7. The Marine Corps pilots flying the C-130T Hercules aircraft, affectionately known as “Fat Albert,” must be aircraft commander qualified with at least 1,200 flight hours.
“The demo pilots are selected by the team,” said Stumpf. “Next year’s demo pilots will be selected by this year’s team.”
That selection will happen during Blue Angels Weekend, when the finalists are interviewed by the 16 officers. The process is more than simply filling out an application and meeting the flight requirements.
“You have to make yourself known to the team personally by rushing the team like you might rush a fraternity,” said Stumpf. “The candidates hang out at air shows, getting themselves there by hook or crook. They get to know the team, and the team gets to know them.”
He explained that the Blues is more than a military association when you become a member of the team. “It has to be very personal, and you have to have a lot of trust.”
Stumpf described the selection process further. “You may have 10 pilots interviewing for the two or three slots. All 16 officers make the final selections. There is no flight test, nothing in the air, no flight simulator. The flight part of it is all determined by how you did at the fleet and your reputation out there. You have to assume the guy has got good hands, otherwise he would be dead.”
Career-oriented officers specializing in maintenance, administration, aviation medicine, public affairs and supply fill support positions. Demonstration pilots, the Events Coordinator, Maintenance Officer and Flight Surgeon serve two years with the squadron. The other officers typically serve three years with the team. Blue Angels officers return to the fleet after their tours of duty.
PICKING THE BOSS
The selection of the Blue Angels commanding officer, “Boss,” is done by the Chief of Naval Air Training in Corpus Christi, Texas. The Boss must have at least 3,000 tactical jet flight hours and have commanded a tactical jet squadron. The Commanding Officer flies the Number 1 jet.
“The big qualification for flight leader is that he has commanded a squadron already,” said Stumpf. “He’s much more senior than the team, a second command tour commander.”
The dual role of CO and flight leader has its challenges. “You walk a very fine line as commanding officer and flight leader of the Blue Angels,” Stumpf told the IN. “You have to be buddies with these five guys flying on your wings. They have to trust you and you trust them. Yet you’re their CO and quite a bit older and more senior than they are. You have to tell them stuff they don’t want to hear.”
Timing can be an issue for squadron leaders wanting to lead the Blues. “Once you’re a commanding officer, you don’t have a year to waste,” said Stumpf. “You have to keep going in the career progression, so you have to be finishing off one command to be available to roll right into the Blue Angels job.”
All the applications are sent to the Chief of Naval Air Training, who establishes a board made up of himself and other senior naval officers, both active and retired, to interview the finalists, usually six officers.
“They are interviewed in a group, then individually and then one-on-one with the admiral,” said Stumpf. At the end of the two-day screening process, the admiral will make his decision.
UNLIKE ANY OTHER FLYING
Stumpf shared some of the challenges he faced as the flight leader of the Blue Angels when he took command in the summer of 1992.
“For me, the whole time, it was physically being able to do what was required to fly the airplane,” said Stumpf.
“What the Blue Angels do in the air is unlike what any of the pilots have ever done before—it bears no resemblance. You have to learn how to fly all over again, literally.”
The shape of the maneuvers may be similar—a loop is a loop, a roll is a roll. The way the Blues do them is very different.
“The Rendezvous, where the planes get back together, a very basic maneuver of naval aviation, is totally different with the Blue Angels,” said Stumpf. “They could never do a fleet rendezvous because it would take too long. It’s really pretty scary when you see these guys coming at you at 500 knots.”
Stumpf’s initial Blue Angel training was done with right wingman (Number 2). “Shortly after that the slot pilot gets right in there because he’s under you and coaches you through all the maneuvers.”
He explained, “All the maneuvers are based on either a left roll or a loop.”
Weight training is also part of the regimen. “The way you learn to fly is to trim the airplane so that there is a no-stick feel, so that if you let go, it will keep going straight.
“What the Blues do is trim in a butt load of stick force–around 40 pounds. To keep the stick neutral, you have to pull back with 40 pounds of pressure for an hour.”
To do that, the pilot has to clip his rudder pedals high so that he can brace his arm on his leg while he is flying. “You have to keep that stick in a death grip, or you will head right into the ground if you let go.”
The Blues have their planes trimmed that way because they can be much more sensitive to movements in the airplane. The pilots also don’t wear g-suits—gravity suits—because there is a bladder on the leg where they have to brace their arm. If it inflated, the bladder would move their arm.
SAME INTENSITY: PRACTICE OR SHOWTIME
There is no difference between a practice and an air show, according to Stumpf. It’s transparent to the pilots, and it doesn’t matter whether a million people are watching or no one. The intensity is the same.
The week of a show, the Events Coordinator and the Flight Surgeon fly ahead on Wednesday and survey the site, which they have already visited earlier in the year during winter training. On Thursday morning, the team briefs on the transit, circle and arrival maneuvers and the practice show and then flies to the show site.
When they arrive at the show site, the Blue Angels refuel, get back in the air and do the circle and arrival maneuvers, in which they fly the show lines to get visual checkpoints every few miles for timing purposes.
Then they land, do a quick brief and take off to do a practice show on Thursday afternoon. On Friday mornings, the Blue Angels visit hospitals and schools. They do another practice show Friday afternoon and usually attend a VIP event in the evening.
Saturday morning the Blue Angels visit more hospitals. The air show is in the afternoon and another social event is that night. Sunday mornings are free. They do another air show in the afternoon and then fly home to Pensacola.
“After every practice or demo, immediately following that, you get together and debrief,” said Stumpf. “It’s all videotaped, frame by frame. Every maneuver is debriefed.
“Starting with the Boss, every pilot tells everybody in the room what they did wrong. Then the slot pilot will debrief all the diamond maneuvers. The lead solo will debrief all the solo maneuvers. The critique guy on the ground is actually the Flight Surgeon. He and the maintenance officer are critiquing each maneuver as it occurs. It’s pretty intense, especially if it doesn’t go well.”
With a smile, Stumpf adds, “You have to have thick skin.”
Stumpf said the debriefing gets more streamlined as the season progresses and the pilots improve. “But that last show is still intense. It requires the same focus as that first one. If you let your concentration down, then things go bad.”
Kelly added that while some of the maneuvers may appear easy on Pensacola Beach, where all the landmarks are well known, they can be much more difficult away from home.
“The pilots go to a strange place, which they may be seeing for the very first time,” said Kelly. “You have to pick out landmarks that you see in one hop around the site, and then there is 30 knots of wind the day of the show. You may have to do your separation maneuver and one guy has a 30-knot tail wind and another has a 30-knot head wind, which makes a big difference when two planes try to cross.”
Stumpf said that the most challenging place the Blue Angels flew while he was the Boss was Chicago. “It was so unforgettable because the buildings are so huge, and the show was right downtown on the waterfront. All the behind-the-crowd maneuvering was done amongst the buildings. We were at 500 feet flying downtown and seeing people looking down on us, waving from their balconies, and the winds were whipping between the buildings.
“We were hanging on just trying to stay in formation.”
He said that San Francisco was similar. “You had all this cool terrain with the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz in the middle of the harbor, the big buildings and the hills in the distance. It was spectacular.”
When asked if he was glad to finish his tour, Stumpf nodded his head and softly said, “Yes.”
“The happiest moment of that whole command was when Number 6 landed and gave the call, ‘Timber is on deck, Boss,’” said Stumpf. “No accidents, nobody got hurt. I was very happy.”
BLUE ANGEL WEEKEND
The Blue Angels will practice for their July 9 air show over Pensacola Beach on Thursday, July 7 and Friday, July 8 starting at 2 p.m.
The full air show is on Saturday, July 9 and includes the Blue Angels and other military and civilian aircraft beginning at 12 p.m. The Blue Angels demonstration will begin at 2 p.m.
We recommend heading to the beach early Saturday morning to stake out your spot on Pensacola Beach. After all, it wouldn’t be a Pensacola summer without seeing them fly.
And while you’re watching the Blues, remember that there are 10 or so hot-shot pilots watching also, hoping that they will be flying with the Blue Angels in next summer’s show.